The King has left the building.
I might very well be the last King of Fighters fan in the Western hemisphere. [That's the one with Fatal Fury's Terry Bogard. ~Ed. Nick] I love a good match against just about anybody, even if I'll never make it to a world championship challenge. Thankfully, this game won't be making its way to a “world championship” anytime soon.
[image1]The King of Fighters '98 Ultimate Match tries to be what everyone wants in a fighting game: buckets of characters, interesting environments, single-fight or three-on-three matches, and generally as much variety as possible. The characters are wrangled up from the best fighting games SNK has to offer (or had to offer back in the early '90s) and all thrown into a blender, letting every player to mix together and find the champion of all of the great King of Fighters titles. Unfortunately, along the way the whole series has gotten stale and unbalanced, and this incarnation is the worst I've seen.
The box says there are 64 characters to choose from, which is an out-and-out fabrication. Technically there are “two games” in this package: the “Ultimate Match” and Neo-Geo versions of KoF '98. Each has 32 fighters to choose from, which is where the 64 comes from (seriously, how far will some companies stretch this sort of thing). Each fighter is assembled into a team of three, and while you can choose them by their preset teams, the option is there to mix-and-match (which is recommended, as each member in a preset team feel way too similar to each other).
[image2]This is where the real problems start. Each character is some form of basic archetype - like “the pop idol with superpowers", “the American street fighter”, “the big, scary mofo beefed up by science and steroids” - and many of them play so similarly to another that it takes even that unique style away.
And to top it all off, the difficulty balance is as crazy-whacked out as it has ever been. Omega Rugal, the final boss, is almost as difficult at the lower levels as he is at the higher ones; his attacks are obscenely powerful (even for a final boss), take up a lot of screen space, and cover him completely so as to avoid any counter-attacks while he prepares. And with only three special attacks, all of which are basically the same effect, he's just out-and-out unfair, broken, and boring.
[image3]One notable point, though, is that the environments and characters still look amazing. The animation of each and every sprite is as fluid and vibrant as ever, even after being ripped from the Neo-Geo's antiquated hardware. Between KoF and the Metal Slug series, this is another game that can be as amusing to watch as it is to play.
What's a bigger shame is the “bonus” content. Along the way, art can be unlocked and looked through, though from the default stuff I don't know why anyone would want to. Anyone who's been to an animé expo has seen more impressive stuff. I wonder if the developers hired their kids to draw their characters for them, or if they seriously hired a fourth-grade class in some cases. A few of them are interesting and of good quality, but the bulk of them might as well be posted on the fridge. The extra disc in the package doesn't help things too much... the KoF XII trailer is pretty enough, but just the one trailer and a handful of KoF '98 wallpapers just aren't worth the hype for their renewing the series.
Especially with Street Fighter IV rebooting the series and the decent 3D overhauls of the Mortal Kombat series, this is a real travesty to be released for SNK Playmore. The King, it hurts me to say, has been de-throned.